On Nov. 7, 2016, I was 270 pages into the manuscript of my 11th novel. I was down to the wire, deadline-wise, but comfortably nearing the final 100 pages of the book, where conflict comes to a head, characters figure out their issues, pages start to fly and deliciously naughty bits occur.
I write romance novels, so those bits aren’t just naughty. They’re also important.
I was feeling so comfortable that I took Nov. 8 off to maniacally refresh fivethirtyeight.com and fantasize about writing a romance novel about wonky researchers and the politicians who loved/hated them. I was going to write that book the moment I finished my current one, starring a coldhearted, bitter, unloved Victorian-era duke and the woman he’d once loved, who’d left him and whom he now wished to punish for past sins . . . if only he weren’t falling in love with her all over again.
He was what romance readers would call a classic alpha, molded in the archetype of masculinity brought to readers for centuries, Darcys and Rochesters, dukes and vampire kings and billionaires, each one cold, hard, impenetrable, angry or unfeeling until he has no chance but to feel, because love trumps hate, doesn’t it?
Like its sisters-in-arms, the mystery and the thriller, the romance holds essential covenants with its readers. Where mysteries promise the reveal of who done it and thrillers promise the triumph of the hero, the romance promises its own heroic vindication: the happily-ever-after. No matter what happens over the course of these books, no matter how low the lows, how devastating the conflict, or how bleak the future might look, the heroes and heroines of these stories will fall in love, and they will live happily ever after. There is ecstasy in that promise.
But there is a second covenant romance writers hold with our readers, particularly when it comes to these heroes: the cold duke, the wicked vampire king, the ruthless billionaire. The impenetrable alpha is always heroic. He rarely shows it, and never brags about it, but he gives to charity, takes in orphan children, protects the weak, and uses his power to help those who are less fortunate. That’s his business, though; don’t ask about it. You and the heroine will find out all about it when it’s time for him to, say, march onto floor of Parliament and vote his conscience.
Romance readers value this covenant beyond all else. We’ve seen the story so many times that we know the beats of it. We know the aggressively masculine exterior is just facade — protective coating until our hero meets his match and his cold, icy heart cracks open along with his cold, icy exterior. Until he realizes that he is half a man without the woman he loves, and he’ll do anything for her partnership, for her success. He’ll suffer her silly family, give up everything for her happiness, sell his company for her dreams. And suddenly, he’s not just an alpha male. He’s an alpha feminist. Committed to her satisfaction in all forms — socially, intellectually, economically, sexually. He respects her beyond measure.
Remember, when Darcy finally seals the deal with Lizzy Bennet, it’s not with “I love you,” but with the promise that her no means no: “One word from you will silence me on this subject forever.” Be still my heart. You can keep the explosive ending in that thriller you’re reading; as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing more explosive than seeing an alpha go full feminist.
My hero, he was on a path to enlightenment. He’d certainly get there by the end. And then, Nov. 9 came. I opened my manuscript — all 270 hard-won pages — and I had a problem.
That hero? The one I’d lovingly crafted in that mold of masculinity that romance readers have loved for centuries? Sure, I had plans for him to see the promise of gender equality, but at that moment, I wanted him gone. This dude wasn’t just aggressively masculine. He was toxic. Indeed, I suspected he would have voted for Donald Trump. And I wanted nothing to do with him.
Suddenly, there was no promise that he would change. That hero — the one whom so many others in the genre have written for centuries, the one who grows into his awareness that everything is better with equality of partnership — he wasn’t enough. I wanted a hero who had that awareness from the start. I wanted an alpha feminist from Page 1.
Reader, I rewrote him.
Recently, romance has seen magnificent examples of the feminist alpha. These are heroes who though immensely wealthy and powerful, don’t wither or scoff at heroines who are powerful in their own right; they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their matches. In Kresley Cole’s “Wicked Abyss,” for instance, the hero is the thousands-of-years-old Abyssian “Sian” Infernas — a demon with the power to literally create and destroy worlds. His infinite power should make him a matchless hero, but Cole delivers him Lila Barbot, a lost princess with character and purpose that makes her not only his equal, but able to wield power beyond Sian’s. What’s more, his passion for her stems from her ability to hold that power. Cole is one of the best romance writers out there, and this is perhaps her best work because of the perfect parity between Sian and Lila.
As for my rewritten hero, “The Day of the Duchess” was released earlier this summer, and though the icy cold Duke of Haven retains the hallmarks of the archetypal alpha, he uses that power, money, influence toward a singular purpose — making himself a partner worthy of his wife, Seraphina, who is now wealthy and powerful in her own right. Haven’s motivations are never muddled. His deep love and abiding respect for his estranged wife — whom he had pushed away with his aggressive masculinity — is never in question. Haven is willing to do anything to raise Sera up, a willingness that delivers its own challenge to their romance, as she is skeptical of this new man with his new passion for equal partnership. Their love was hard won, for them and for me. But there is no doubt in my mind — or in Sera’s — that Haven is with her.
Sarah MacLean reviews romance novels monthly for The Washington Post. Her most recent book is “The Day of the Duchess.”